Rukmani wonders how they will manage the reaping, given that they are so weak from hunger. Nathan says that “one look at the swelling grain” will give them strength. Three weeks remain until the harvest. Rukmani knows that she and the older children will endure, but Kuti is in constant danger; he’s developed a large rash, and sores form when he scratches it. Whenever he falls asleep, Rukmani fears that he has died.
Kuti is dying from highly preventable causes, but Rukmani can do nothing to help him. This family tragedy highlights Rukmani’s powerlessness because of the land, even though she previously saw agriculture as an empowering force.
Some days later, Rukmani notices that Kuti has taken a turn for the better. She fears that the small improvement is the signal of impending death, but he continues to sleep peacefully and Rukmani thanks the Gods for their beneficence. Alongside her mother, Irawaddy watches the little boy sleep.
Even in this extreme situation, Rukmani doesn’t question why things happen to her children, attributing them to impersonal divine entities.
At daybreak, Rukmani wakes up filled with optimism. Suddenly she hears footsteps entering the hut and fears that Kunthi has returned to steal from them again. She sees a woman’s figure in the dusk and throws herself at it, hitting her furiously until she hears a voice screaming, “Mother!” Suddenly, Nathan is dragging Rukmani away and yelling, and Rukmani realizes that she has been violently beating Irawaddy, her own daughter.
Rukmani’s high state of internal tension leads her to lash out physically at her own daughter. At the same time, the mistake highlights the lurking parallels between Irawaddy, whom Rukmani loves, and Kunthi, whom she despises.
Nathan and Selvam carry Irawaddy inside and Rukmani tends to the wounds she has just caused. Seeing long cuts on Irawaddy’s arms, Rukmani realizes she has been wearing bangles, which broke against her body. She’s mystified, given that no one has enough money to buy jewelry right now. Rukmani brings Irawaddy’s dirty sari to the river; as she washes it, a rupee falls from the folds into the water. As she finishes her chores, Rukmani wonders how Irawaddy got the money and if she has been stealing.
It’s increasingly clear that Irawaddy has been working as a prostitute—the only way women in the novel’s world can make money, and the reason she would have been wearing bangles. This is another connection between her and Kunthi, but Rukmani’s reaction will be very different.
Rukmani returns to the hut, where Irawaddy and Kuti are lying. Irawaddy tells Rukmani to use the rupee in her sari and buy him some food. Now, Rukmani knows that Irawaddy has been responsible for the baby’s improvement. Rukmani says that she will, not admitting that the rupee fell into the river.
It’s never entirely clear if Rukmani accepts or disapproves of Irawaddy’s choice. She’s not even particularly perturbed to have lost the precious rupee, which could feed Kuti. The extent of her suffering is making her not just stoic but numb and passive to events around her.
When Irawaddy’s wounds heal, she gets ready to leave the house again despite Rukmani’s injunctions to rest. She refuses to tell Rukmani where she goes, but arranges her hair carefully. Rukmani imagines her walking into the town, followed by the eyes of jeering men. Irawaddy says that “the truth is unpalatable,” and Rukmani remembers that the tannery official said the same thing.
While Rukmani refuses to accommodate views like those endorsed by the tannery officials, her children are more pragmatic about the necessity of interacting with and submitting to the outside world in order to survive. Staying aloof allows Rukmani to maintain a moral high ground, but it’s often her children who ensure the survival of the family, as Irawaddy does now.
When Nathan returns from the fields, he too demands to know where Irawaddy is going. She refuses to tell him, even though she’s normally an obedient daughter. Nathan tries to forbid her from going out and accuses her of turning into “a common strumpet,” but Irawaddy says that she will do so as long as there is hunger in the house. Rukmani knows that they cannot stop her; she is no longer a child but “a grown woman with a definite purpose and an invincible determination.”
Although Nathan uses harsh words, he doesn’t actually try to control Irawaddy’s behavior. Girls are supposed to be docile and obedient, but Nathan and Rukmani don’t enforce this principle in any tangible way. Rather, they extend to Irawaddy the same freedom of choice that their sons enjoy.
By working as a prostitute, Irawaddy buys milk for Kuti and rice for the family. Rukmani is grateful, but Nathan refuses to eat the food his daughter brings home. At first, Kuti seems to improve, but soon it becomes clear he is dying. One night, he calls out for Rukmani, telling her he can no longer see. Rukmani tells him to go to sleep, promising he will soon be better again. He seems content, and when he opens his eyes again Rukmani sees that he is already dead. With Nathan, Rukmani croons and cries over her son; however, although she’s mourning, she’s also relieved that Kuti no longer has to struggle and suffer.
Again, Nathan shows himself a more passive and less pragmatic character than his wife and daughter. Although his objections are understandable, it’s clear that the family would not survive if it relied exclusively on him. This situation punctures the myth of male control on which Indian society rests. On the other hand, it also points out the desperate circumstances of women who have to provide for their family but have no legitimate way to do so.